[Paleopsych] CHE: So Happy Together

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Fri Dec 2 02:55:26 UTC 2005

So Happy Together
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.25

    If you're a scientist who is not used to collaborating with
    nonscientists, you'd better get used to it


    Perhaps you love your scientific work because it allows you to spend
    lots of time outdoors, taking water samples in all kinds of weather.
    Or perhaps your scientific work allows you to hole up with your
    computer and run calculation after calculation as you seek solutions
    to problems. Either way, its you and your intellectual pursuits,
    shielded from the day-to-day irritations of dealing with people.

    So what could you possibly gain from collaborating with others as you
    pursue your scientific goals, exposing yourself to interpersonal
    conflict like a lab rat to a pathogen?

    More money.

    Whether we like it or not, collaboration is becoming the norm for much
    federally financed research. Sometimes the complexity of todays
    scientific questions requires investigators from a variety of
    disciplines to work together. In other cases, agencies seek multiple
    payoffs from their grant dollars: educational innovations and societal
    benefits as well as advances in basic science. Either way, the
    multiyear, multimillion-dollar awards increasingly are reserved for
    collaborative work.

    Some investigators may now be thinking, I can play that game. Ill
    collect a bunch of individual research proposals, slap them together,
    and send them in under one title. More money for the same amount of
    effort on my part.

    It doesnt work that way.

    Over and over, I have heard program officers say that in the
    collaborative proposals they see, scientific excellence is usually a
    given. What makes or breaks those proposals are the nonscience
    aspects, such as management and leadership. Here are some things to
    consider in preparing a competitive collaborative grant application.

    Thinking Outside the College. First, understand that your idea of
    multidisciplinary and the grant agencys idea of that concept may be
    very different, and it is the agencys view that matters in grant
    writing. Faculty members often focus narrowly on their area of
    expertise, so that anything just a little different seems exotic. For
    example, a physical oceanographer might view a partnership with a
    biological oceanographer as multidisciplinary work.

    While that may be so in the rarefied world of oceanography journals,
    it typically is not enough for a large grant agency. Such agencies
    want you to do more than think outside the department. They want you
    to think outside the college.

    When I say outside the college, I dont just mean chemists joining
    hands with chemical engineers. In some instances, it can mean
    scientists engaging with social scientists and humanists. Check past
    awards in the program that interests you to see what has been
    considered multidisciplinary.

    Lets use the hypothetical example of a center for the study of natural
    disasters such as earthquakes to consider what a multidisciplinary
    collaboration might look like. The team will naturally include a
    seismologist, a geophysicist, and an earthquake engineer. But a
    comprehensive center also might include social scientists. One might
    explore how groups of people behave when faced with an imminent
    threat. Another might be a public-policy expert who studies obstacles
    to effective emergency planning.

    Those social scientists will have to be an integral part of the team.
    If you have an underlying disdain for what you view as soft
    scientists, it will come through loud and clear.

    For a truly collaborative project, you will need to accept them as
    equal partners rather than people whose biographical sketches you
    throw in merely to satisfy the program requirement for investigators
    outside your discipline. You show that they are partners by providing
    resources for them in the budget.

    It is also wise to include them in development of the proposal to
    ensure it is sound from a scholarly standpoint. If you are a biologist
    and you write your conception of what your political-science
    colleagues will contribute instead of their conception, you will
    weaken your case for collaboration. You might make a fatal mistake,
    such as calling psychology one of the humanities. (It has happened.)

    Reviewers of collaborative proposals will be drawn from the array of
    disciplines represented in the proposal. A political scientist from
    another institution will quickly notice if your social scientists are
    mere window dressing.

    In planning your collaboration, think about an orchestra. If the
    violinist is fiddling away at a bluegrass melody, the clarinetist is
    tootling a klezmer tune, and the pianist is banging out Billy Joel,
    its cacophony, no matter how good they are individually. But put them
    together for Rhapsody in Blue, and theyre making music.

    They Also Serve Who Only Push Paper. The entire scholarly team will
    have to accept that a large collaborative grant requires the services
    of people who arent scientists but must be adequately paid. Some
    researchers find it anguishing to spend their scarce grant dollars on
    anything but lab equipment and scientific personnel.

    But part of the challenge of a large collaborative grant is to manage
    it efficiently after you receive the award. That takes time, and you
    probably have firsthand experience with it. Do you complain when you
    have to submit annual and final reports for your grants? Think of that
    kind of work multiplied by a factor of 10 or 15, and you will begin to
    see the value of a project manager. Previous recipients of
    collaborative grants say that bad management, rather than bad science,
    is usually the reason that a renewal application is rejected.

    Staffing needs will vary from program to program, but all
    collaborations need a manager and someone to oversee the budget. In
    some collaborative projects, agencies expect diversity and education
    efforts. Some investigators have hired full-time individuals for each
    of those duties. Although these administrative tasks may sound like
    punishment to you, some people enjoy them and perform them well.

    Follow the Leader. A collaborative grant requires strong leadership.
    The impetus must come from faculty members who are excited about
    pursuing the area of scientific inquiry at the heart of the project.
    The principal investigator should be a prominent scientist with a long
    record of extramural grants and publications.

    But the project also needs someone to serve as its prime mover, and
    that person does not necessarily have to be the senior scientist. That
    individual has to be willing to put time and energy into pulling
    together the collaboration. He or she needs to be organized, a good
    time manager, a team builder, and able to take criticism in stride.

    The project leader also must be able to persuade top institutional
    officials that multidisciplinary work is valuable and rewarded in
    tenure and promotion decisions. Those tasks are clearly not science,
    but theyre essential to the success of the project. If you scoff at
    them as mere management clichés, find someone who takes them

    Those who have formed collaborations emphasize that they take a lot of
    time. It is common to spend a year developing a collaborative proposal
    that is based on a decade of less formal interactions with other

    As with any proposal, it may take two or three submissions before you
    get any money. But look on the bright side: The additional years you
    spend revising the proposal allow you to develop better relationships
    with your collaborators -- and to jettison the ones you dont want.

    Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University
    of Rhode Islands research office.

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